Articles | Volume 15, issue 11
Research article
29 Nov 2011
Research article |  | 29 Nov 2011

A trading-space-for-time approach to probabilistic continuous streamflow predictions in a changing climate – accounting for changing watershed behavior

R. Singh, T. Wagener, K. van Werkhoven, M. E. Mann, and R. Crane

Abstract. Projecting how future climatic change might impact streamflow is an important challenge for hydrologic science. The common approach to solve this problem is by forcing a hydrologic model, calibrated on historical data or using a priori parameter estimates, with future scenarios of precipitation and temperature. However, several recent studies suggest that the climatic regime of the calibration period is reflected in the resulting parameter estimates and model performance can be negatively impacted if the climate for which projections are made is significantly different from that during calibration. So how can we calibrate a hydrologic model for historically unobserved climatic conditions? To address this issue, we propose a new trading-space-for-time framework that utilizes the similarity between the predictions under change (PUC) and predictions in ungauged basins (PUB) problems. In this new framework we first regionalize climate dependent streamflow characteristics using 394 US watersheds. We then assume that this spatial relationship between climate and streamflow characteristics is similar to the one we would observe between climate and streamflow over long time periods at a single location. This assumption is what we refer to as trading-space-for-time. Therefore, we change the limits for extrapolation to future climatic situations from the restricted locally observed historical variability to the variability observed across all watersheds used to derive the regression relationships. A typical watershed model is subsequently calibrated (conditioned) on the predicted signatures for any future climate scenario to account for the impact of climate on model parameters within a Bayesian framework. As a result, we can obtain ensemble predictions of continuous streamflow at both gauged and ungauged locations. The new method is tested in five US watersheds located in historically different climates using synthetic climate scenarios generated by increasing mean temperature by up to 8 °C and changing mean precipitation by −30% to +40% from their historical values. Depending on the aridity of the watershed, streamflow projections using adjusted parameters became significantly different from those using historically calibrated parameters if precipitation change exceeded −10% or +20%. In general, the trading-space-for-time approach resulted in a stronger watershed response to climate change for both high and low flow conditions.